Brookhaven City Council recently voted to amend its ethics ordinance to clarify the council’s role should a time come when a councilmember needs to be removed.
The council voted Aug. 23 to make changes that fill what City Attorney Chris Balch called a “gaping hole” in the ethics ordinance by saying the mayor and City Council will preside over any investigation and public hearings for due process where a councilmember, or mayor, is subject to being removed based on an ethics complaint.
The person being investigated, however, will not be part of the presiding board.
Councilmember Bates Mattison, who voted against the amendment, said he was not comfortable with the City Council being “judge and jury” when it comes to deciding the fate of a fellow councilmember.
“I’d rather see the jurors be independent parties, an ethics commission or even citizens,” he said.
City Attorney Chris Balch explained there was not a mechanism in place to remove a councilmember in the city’s ethics ordinance, which left a hole in the process. “You can drive a truck or five or six freight trains through it,” he said.
The amended ordinance outlines the council’s role in conducting an investigation into a viable complaint against an elected official in which the council holds public hearings that include gathering evidence to remove the official.
The hearing will include time for the prosecutor of the case, an attorney, and the official facing the complaint, or his or her attorney, to give opening statements. Witnesses are allowed from both sides and there are closing statements. Cross-examination of witnesses is allowed and the city is given subpoena power.
Last year, former mayor Rebecca Chase Williams ordered an ethics review of Mattison after he took a paid job as executive director at Brookhaven Innovation Academy, the new public charter school he and the City Council helped create.
An independent attorney was hired by the council to conduct the investigation and concluded it was legal for Mattison to take the position. The legal review advised Mattison recuse himself from any BIA-related discussion and also strongly suggested he not accept a fundraising bonus as part of his job.
Mattison stepped down from his BIA post in May.
The council and Balch said there was no rush to approve the amended ordinance because of a pending case to remove a council member. But Balch said to not have a mechanism in place to remove a councilmember leaves the city in a precarious position should something happen.
Mattison said the people should be able to decide what to do with a councilmember. “Let the people judge us. They voted us in, they can vote us out,” he said.
Mayor John Ernst said it was important to have language in the ordinance outlining due process and that the council can continue to discuss the issue at future meetings.
“If we change to have an ethics board, that doesn’t change the fact that these procedures need to be in there,” he said.
In Dunwoody, the city has an Ethics Board where complaints against elected officials can be filed. The board is made up of five members and two alternates appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council. Sandy Springs also has an Ethics Board with five members and two alternates who are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.